Donaven McCulley is 'the guy' for IU until further notice — or someone else is healthy

Dustin Dopirak
The Herald-Times

BLOOMINGTON -- Tom Allen wasn't ready to make any declarations on Saturday about the future, near or distant, of Indiana's quarterback position. 

He was proud of the performance of freshman and former Lawrence North star Donaven McCulley in the Hoosiers' loss at Maryland in which McCulley threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns and was not intercepted. But he does still have two quarterbacks on the mend in Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle who have won significant games for the Hoosiers in the past. Though both are currently listed as redshirt juniors and in their fourth years of college, they each have two years of eligibility remaining after this season should they choose to use them with the 2020 season not counting against them due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Allen was asked Monday how he would handle the quarterback situation if Penix (separated shoulder) or Tuttle (right foot injury) were to emerge healthy before the season ends. He responded to the hypothetical by dodging specifics, other than to say that Penix, who was injured at Penn State on Oct. 2., seems closer to a return than Tuttle, who was hurt against Ohio State on Oct. 23. 

Indiana's Donaven McCulley (0) runs during the Indiana versus Michigan State football game at Memorial Stadium Saturday, October 16, 2021.

"Great question," Allen said. "... they both continue to be, as I stated after the game, week to week. And we'll see how they progress this week. A little unknown as far as with Jack's injury. See how quickly he'll bounce back from that. I know Michael's throwing and moving around and doing things at maybe a better rate than we thought."

That was effectively an admission that Allen would be facing a difficult decision if all things were suddenly equal between McCulley and one of the more experienced quarterbacks. But as it stands, they are not. Penix, if and when he does return, will not be far removed from a separated AC joint in his throwing shoulder. McCulley will still be the only scholarship quarterback on Indiana's roster who isn't recovering from injury. 

"Donaven is the healthiest right now," Allen said. "And he is the guy that we're getting ready to play."

Any big-picture decisions Allen makes at quarterback could carry a lot of weight. The position could be much more crowded next year if Penix and Tuttle both choose to return. By the 2022 season, they should also have a healthy Dexter Williams after the redshirt freshman tore his ACL in spring practice and missed all of this year. He will likely have four years of eligibility still remaining. The Hoosiers are also due to add three-star recruit Josh Hoover of Rockwell-Heath High School in Texas in the Class of 2022. Hoover has already thrown for 27 touchdowns in nine games this season and has passed for over 8,800 yards and 95 touchdowns in three high school seasons. 

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But Allen will make decisions on those players when they are actually available and for now McCulley is the only one who is. The 6-5, 200-pound right-hander had good moments and bad against Maryland, which ultimately stands to reason. He completed six of his first eight passes, then missed on his next seven, but then finished the day by completing eight of his last 10 throws. Included among those were both of McCulley's touchdown passes as well as his two-longest throws of the day, a 41-yarder to wide receiver Miles Marshall through the hands of a Maryland defender, and a 52-yarder to wide receiver Ty Fryfogle on the Hoosiers' final drive. 

"I thought he had some moments in the game when he did a nice job and certainly there were some plays where we have to improve," said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Nick Sheridan. "We don't just sweep some of the mistakes under the rug and not address them. There were a few plays where the ball bounced our way when we probably didn't make as good of decisions or as good of a throw and we were fortunate they were just broken-up passes. They could have been turnovers." 

That being said, McCulley seemed to do a good job of getting over his mistakes. He certainly didn't dwell on his 1-of-6 passing performance against Ohio State when he had to step in for Tuttle on Oct. 23 and he didn't dwell on the sack he took on the game's first possession Saturday or the drought he had in completing passes in the middle of the game. He showed confidence in his ability to move on and not let one bad play beget another. 

Oct 30, 2021; College Park, Maryland, USA;  Indiana Hoosiers quarterback Donaven McCulley (0) rolls out to throw during the second half as Maryland Terrapins defensive lineman Greg Rose (46) defends at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.

It spoke well for McCulley that the Hoosiers never decided to pull him in favor of walk-on Grant Gremel. The redshirt sophomore Noblesville graduate got extensive work against Ohio State after Tuttle's injury, Allen said, because the Hoosiers' hadn't had time to school McCulley well enough to be prepared to run more than a package of plays from Indiana's offense and Gremel had more of a comfort level with the reads.

"He demonstrated the ability to compete for four quarters and for 60 minutes," Sheridan said of McCulley. "To be tough. To continue to play the next play. I was impressed by that. Sometimes, you don't know. You don't know until you get out there. Being out there, I was just impressed by his competitiveness. I was proud of him for that." 

McCulley's combination of moxie and dual-threat talent at least gives the Hoosiers a puncher's chance down the stretch. At 2-6 overall, 0-5 in the Big Ten, they have to win out to reach a third-straight bowl game and none of the remaining four games are certain victories. The Hoosiers travel to No. 10 Michigan (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday followed by home games against Rutgers (4-4, 1-4) and Minnesota (6-2, 4-1) before the Old Oaken Bucket Game at Purdue (5-3, 3-2) to end the regular season on Nov. 27. McCulley might not have the game experience or comfort level with the offense that his injured predecessors had, but he has similar arm strength and better speed. 

But more to the point, he's healthy. So as long as he is and as long as no one else is, the quarterback job is his. 

"To me right now Donaven's the guy," Allen said. "And we got to keep getting him ready to play better every week."